A NEW SHOW: 150 YEARS OF GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS . . . 1867–2017

A new stage performance by DOUGLAS GIBSON, announced here first, to my faithful blog friends!

From coast to coast to coast (Ungava Bay, aboard an Adventure Canada cruise ship!) former publisher Douglas Gibson has given over 160 performances of the dramatized versions of his first two books. Against the backdrop of the brilliant author caricatures by Anthony Jenkins (of Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Pierre Trudeau, and many others), he has told behind-the-scenes stories about the men and women he got to know well.

Internationally, he has taken his show celebrating Canadian authors to London (where he fell off the Canada House stage, a West-End triumph) to Beijing, to Mexico, and beyond.

Now he has created a new show – again with the help of Anthony Jenkins – to celebrate our greatest storytellers  since Confederation….English, French, and Indigenous. People in many Canadian communities may think that staging  the show is a fine way to celebrate our Sesquicentennial.

The power-point show follows our history decade by decade. Each decade begins with a burst of Canadian music from the time. On screen we see a familiar photo of the decade (“Ah, yes,that was the time of the Klondike Gold Rush”), and then several iconic pieces of Canadian art, by people like Cornelius Krieghoff, or Lawren Harris, or Mary Pratt.  Then the burst of music stops, and the caricature of the chosen author appears, and fascinating (boiling his moccasins?) stories about the chosen author and his or her best book are excitingly told (in front of a train?)

Usually, in each decade only one novelist in French and one in English will be chosen. This means that the show will be controversial (“How could you leave out X from the 1980s?”), but Doug Gibson will be happy to provoke spirited debate about our best authors. And while the show will be in English, everything on the screen, such as book titles and the names of the translation (“Kamouraska and Kamouraska, you say?”) will be bilingual. We all may learn more about our greatest authors, including the epic Haida storyteller, Skaay.

To learn more about booking the show,which will run from May-December 2017, please consult www.douglasgibsonbooks.com, or contact Jane Gibson at jane1929@rogers.com ,or phone 416 489 1929.

Please spread the news.

THE RUNNING OF THE DEER

Having what you might call “an editorial mind” can be a blessing or a curse. Musing about the hidden meanings of well-known phrases can lead to surprises, or at least insomnia.
Consider, for example, the ubiquitous Christmas Carol, “The Holly and the Ivy”. The chorus begins.. “O, the rising of the sun, And the running of the deer. The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir”.
All very pleasant, right? Perhaps especially the prancing and trotting of the little deer, some of which might even be agreeably red-nosed.
Except that the editorial mind recalls that in the Middle Ages — when “The Holly and the Ivy” was written — maintaining a reliable supply of food was difficult. Getting deer-meat on the table involved great dangers for ordinary, starving peasants, who would be killed if they dared to poach a deer from someone’s forest. As for the lordly forest-owners, to get their supply of venison they would occasionally organise a ” deer drive”. They would noisily “run” the startled deer, flushed out from their hiding places, towards a line of armed bowmen, who would then shoot them down and butcher them.
That was what “the running of the deer” involved. An interesting way to re-interpret a lovely, apparently innocent, old carol.
There was a Canadian equivalent, for many generations, in the buffalo hunt on the Prairies. Buffalo (or Bison, if you prefer) are huge, and fast. Until the local humans were able to use horses to keep up with them, or to invent fine bows and arrows to shoot them down, they had to rely on cunning to catch them and use them for food. So they invented what we cheerfully call “buffalo jumps”.
I’m happy that we’ve dropped the euphemisms by adopting the name Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for the Provincial Historic site near Fort Macleod in Alberta. I went there once with my friend Andy Russell, the historian and mountain man. Because I was with Andy, they let me go behind the scenes. We walked up the slight slope to the flat prairie, then turned, and got a buffalo’s eye view as we sauntered unsuspectingly towards the hidden cliff-top.
It was easy to imagine how successful the hidden “drivers” leaping out , yelling and waving blankets, must have been at keeping the snorting, stampeding herd going straight towards the hidden cliff edge, where the slight downward slope turned into a roaring plunge to death, and smashed in heads.
And of course, the butchering and skinning took the hard-working women many days, and with collected saskatoon berries produced the pemmican that opened up the West to the Fur Trade. But that, of course is another story… which takes us a long way from the Running of the Deer.

We are just waiting for our vegetarian grandchildren to arrive for Dinner. Merry Christmas

MARSHALLING NEW FACTS ABOUT McLUHAN

In Across Canada By Story I spend some time discussing my links with Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Today I learned some interesting new facts about both of them. This was courtesy of an intriguing new Exhibition on McLuhan in the St. Michael’s College Library at the University of Toronto ….which happens to located on “Marshall McLuhan Way”.

The well-known facts about Marshall are all there, including the unfamiliar news that at first he published as “Herbert Marshall McLuhan”. We  are reminded that he first produced the phrase “the medium is the message” at a conference for radio broadcasters in Vancouver as early as 1957, and that The Gutenberg Galaxy  came out in 1962, winning the Governor-General’s Prize (from  a jury chaired by Northrop Frye) and establishing his reputation, so that in a few years the San Francisco Chronicle was calling him “the hottest academic property around”.

By  1967 his fame had spread so that the Toronto Star called him “Toronto’s most influential and controversial celebrity.” From 1965 t0 1969 in the US alone, interviews with him ran in Harpers, Newsweek, The New York Times, Life, Fortune, Esquire, Look, TV Guide, McCalls, Glamour, Vogue, Family Circle, Mademoiselle, the Saturday Evening Post , and in Playboy.

Ah, yes, Playboy…. the magazine full of airbrushed naked women who occasionally caught the passing eyes of teenaged boys who really bought the magazine “for the articles”. After Playboy ran their 1968 piece on Marshall (labelled “a candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media”), Marshall wrote to Jack Kessie, the Managing Editor. The letter, on display in the Exhibition, was pure McLuhan. He assured Mr. Kessie that “nudity is not realism.Compared to the clad figure, nudity is sculpture. Clothing is an anti-environment, a kind of weaponry, providing an enclosed space that is pictorial rather than sculptural….'”

To reassure Playboy’s head man further, he went on “Of course, basic human sex attraction is olfactory, not photo-factory, hence the playful harmlessness and natural innocence of your pictures.” Perhaps we can assume that before Mr. Kessie went home to be greeted by his sweet-smelling wife, he considered raising the price of ads for perfumes in the magazine.

I have written about how Marshall and Northrop Frye (that’s Herman Northrop Frye) were two very large fish in a fairly small Toronto pond. They were wary of each other and tried to avoid giving offence, working together as U. of T. English Department colleagues. They were, I argue in the book, friendly rivals. Yet in the Exhibition there is a 1971 letter about Marshall from Frye  that hints at the strain. Ronald S. Berman, the Chair of the National Endowment For The Humanities had written to Frye from Washington asking if he would recommend McLuhan to give a major speech.

In part Frye’s letter reads…”and I think he would do a very good job for you, assuming that he took the assignment seriously and wrote out his speech beforehand. He makes a deliberate technique of uttering what he calls “probes”, or challenges to the imagination, which to many people sound like simply irresponsible statements, and his habit of regarding the whole of culture as a gigantic allegory of his own view is growing on him.”

At the end of the letter, Frye’s irritation at having been lured into these frank statements seems to me flick out, like a dragon’s tongue. See what you think..” If you invited him to give the lecture you would, I think, be taking something of a risk, but I think you ought to take a risk, like everybody else, and not hedge your bets by enquiries of this kind.

Yours sincerely”

From the Exhibition I walked for five minutes to re-visit Marshall’s old Centre For Culture and Technology, at 39A Queen’s Park Crescent. It still reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase “an unused Newfoundland fishing shack” and I was unable to get inside, to remind me of visits to see Marshall there. But I was able to clamber through the undisturbed snow, to peer through the window inside the room that launched a thousand probes.

IN PRAISE OF JIM MUNRO

We all lost an important friend this week when Jim Munro died in Victoria. He was a major figure on Canada’s book scene for over 60 years, a fact that was recognised in 2014 when he received the Order of Canada for “his vital championship of countless Canadian writers and for his sustained community engagement.”

In 1963 he and his wife Alice moved from Vancouver to set up a bookstore in Victoria. They worked together in the store, and raised three daughters, a life well described in Sheila Munro’s memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters. In 1972, the Munros divorced, with Alice returning to Ontario to write, and Jim staying in Victoria to create the most beautiful bookstore in Canada. If that sounds like excessive praise, consider the fact that recently National Geographic Magazine ranked Munro’s books, in a former Royal Bank building at the heart of downtown’s Government Street, as the third best bookstore IN THE WORLD.

I was a frequent visitor. As my second book, Across Canada By Story, makes clear, I’ve always loved roaming around the country, meeting authors and people in the Canadian book world. Seeing Jim again was always a delight. I’d drop in to the store, chat with wise book people on staff like Dave Hill, then join Jim in the office tucked away just to the right of the front door, to discuss the book trade in general. As a Canadian Bookseller of the Year, more than once, he was heavily involved in bookselling issues (chains, Amazon, Canadian agencies,”Buying around”, e-books, and much else — we never got on to colouring books) and I always learned a lot from this cheery, bluff man (The under-used word “bluff” is precise, for this friendly, red-faced fellow with, latterly, a neat beard.)

The same pleasure applied to his visits to the annual Canadian Booksellers Association trade fair, summer events usually held in Toronto, when meeting with Jim and his team was always a highlight of a major event in the publishing calendar. Down through the years, as a shrewd local link with the publishing world, he sold untold millions of books to grateful readers. The cultural impact is hard to over-state.

Long after their divorce he remained a strong supporter of Alice’s writing, and as her editor and publisher I found myself receiving advice about this or that forthcoming book, its title, price, and its cover. Mostly, I seemed to be doing all right.

Through the years the Munro daughters kept their links with the store and its staff. When I was in Stockholm for the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 2014, Munro’s Books leapt into the Swedish limelight. Our Ambassador to Sweden, Kenneth MacCartney,  staged a splendid celebration at lunch, inviting many Swedish literary figures to this proud event for Canada, and — ahem– some of us made speeches about Alice, the author of The Love Of A Good Woman, and many other titles dealing with affairs of the heart. It was all very fine.

Yet one of the finest moments came when the Ambassador introduced his wife, Susan, and revealed that as a student in Victoria he had courted her, successfully, while she was working in Munro’s Books.

 

A NEW TORONTO SHOW

FREE, AT THE DEER PARK LIBRARY , ON ST.CLAIR AVENUE AT YONGE STREET, ON TUESDAY , DECEMBER 6 AT 2 pm.

 

BOB DYLAN AND LEONARD COHEN

I was disappointed to read that Bob Dylan has decided not to go to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a huge loss — for him. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies knows what a pinnacle they represent. Attendance is so cherished that to get into the hall (all gentlemen wearing the de rigueur white tie and tails) you must present not only your ticket, with the specific seat number noted, but also YOUR PASSPORT, to prove that you are the person to whom the valuable ticket was issued.

Jane and I still remember every dreamy detail of our 2013 day there as part of the Alice Munro party. We also remember the sense that we were part of what I can only describe as “the world at its best”.

Now, with his unfortunate decision, Bob Dylan will miss all of that.

I suspect that, even at death’s door, Leonard Cohen would not have made that mistake.

I knew Leonard, a little, because when I was the Publisher at M&S, we published his new poetry books. In the process, I worked cordially with Leonard’s charming agent, who was secretly stealing all of his money. Ironically, this crime had the beneficial effect of forcing Leonard to revive his career, making him earn new money by going on tour again, and writing and performing fine new songs.

I have two memories of Leonard that may be worth sharing. First, when he was at McGill, he studied English with Hugh MacLennan. They liked each other, and became friends. Hugh told me that once in private conversation Leonard was explaining the opportunities opened by the new, open sexual freedoms among young people like him. The older Presbyterian was scandalised , and protested: “But Leonard, you remind me of a girl I knew back in Nova Scotia. She was called “Anytime Annie”!”

Leonard did not mend his ways, to the relief of many ladies down through the years.

Once, when he visited our Toronto office in what was a busy day of interviews, for lunch we brought in to the Boardroom some unglamorous sandwiches from Druxy’s downstairs. Leonard was perfectly happy, expecting absolutely no special treatment. He chatted happily with me and Avie Bennett and Ellen Seligman, about subjects ranging from Hugh MacLennan to how to get money from a bank machine in sketchy areas in LA. In such a situation, he explained, using an on-street machine was asking for trouble, making yourself a target. So what you looked for was a bank machine inside a small grocery store. There you cased the joint, apparently immersed in reading the ingredients of, say, a bottle of Pepsi.

Then, when the coast was clear, you drifted across to the machine, still apparently deep into your Pepsi scrolls, quickly punched in your banking needs, grabbed and concealed the cash, then escaped to the front of the store with your Pepsi purchase. Muggers were not interested in a man bearing a bottle of Pepsi.

In the mourning that followed Leonard’s death, I was pleased by how seriously our newspapers took his loss. The CBC, too, devoted important hours to paying tribute to him and his work. I found myself deeply moved by the message that he had sent to Marianne, his long-time lover, when she was dying in Norway this summer. His loving message ended with the words…”see you down the road.”

On Remembrance Day came my moment of revelation. Unlike Bob Dylan, I would argue, Leonard Cohen knew what was really important. When someone came to him asking if he would recite “In Flanders Fields”, he said yes. Many major musical stars would have laughed off the idea of reciting this poem from grade school , about the First World War, for Heaven’s sake, as hopelessly “uncool”.

Leonard read the poem aloud. As the CBC ended its broadcast of Remembrance Day with Leonard reading that poem, the fact that it was happening  in the week of his death was almost too much to bear. But most powerful of all was how brilliantly he read it. No tricks, nothing fancy, just a serious, perfect reading, by a poet who knew what really mattered.

I’m sorry that Stockholm will not see him.

MOOSE JAW MEMORIES

We’ve been travelling around, at the expense of the blog, but amassing a number of stories. In Moose Jaw, at the Saskatchewan Writers Festival, we knew that we would have a fine time. This was a return engagement, after a three year lapse, and the old gang of friends was there, wallowing in the pool at The Spa, or strolling through central Crescent Park, where a beaver put on a special evening cruise for us.
We had breakfast with Harold Johnson and Joan, whom we met three years ago, as authors on the same stage in the Library. In August Harold is bringing out what sounds like a very controversial book about the impact of alcohol on our indigenous people. As a Cree with a law degree from Harvard who works as a Crown in La Ronge, Harold  knows about the daily damage of booze to our society. The book is called FIREWATER, and will come from Bruce Walsh’s University of Regina Press. It seems certain to be a powerful book. Watch for it.

On Friday afternoon I gave my Across Canada By Story show in the Mae Wilson Theatre that I remembered with such affection. All went well, although this time there was no superb introduction by Bob Currie (whom I’d like to pack up in my bag, and take with me as my Travelling Introducer). Earlier, I had the pleasure of sharing a session with Bob reading his poetry this year.

I helped with one or two other events, once unofficially. I found Zarqa Nawaz, author of LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE MOSQUE wandering aimlessly around the Library, when she was supposed to be the main lunch speaker. I led her there, and from the stage she told her interviewer, Angie Abdou, that this “nice man” had rescued her, and got her to the event on time. When the “nice man” was asked to identify himself, Angie laughingly suggested that following this particular nice man’s directions was usually good policy for any Canadian author.

On the final day of the Festival, events took a strange turn. I was on a five-author panel on humour, and the speaker before me was Zarqa. She was very keen to inform us all just how difficult it has been for her to find a market for her most recent piece of writing, a very thorough non-fiction study of labiaplasty. She spoke at some length about this, and the audience seemed to like it.

(There may be a link here with the romantic reticence in Saskatchewan that was satirised by singer Connie Kaldor in her Saturday concert at the Mae Wilson Theatre. She asked “Did you hear about the Prairie farmer who loved his wife so much that….. he almost told her?”)

Speaking for the first time, I followed Zarqa by thanking the organisers for inviting me to come to this superb festival. Then I noted, disapprovingly, that while inviting me to participate in the Humour panel, they had not even mentioned the word “labiaplasty”.

Not even once.

The ensuing discussion was amusing,and we all had a good time. Although Terry Fallis later suggested that I might have been wiser to avoid the issue of labiaplasty altogether. He said that I should have kept tight-lipped about it. I believe that was the term he used.

LOVE ALL – A TENNIS CONUNDRUM

Like so many Canadians, I cheered along as Milos Raonic fought back for famous victories against David Goffin of Belgium, and Roger Federer of Switzerland. This was a wonderful thing for Canada…a Canadian in the Men’s Final at Wimbledon. Surely this was something for all of us to get behind, cheering him on.

Except for this: his opponent in the Final was Andy Murray of Scotland.

I was born into a keen tennis-playing family in Scotland. I was good enough that I was on the local Men’s Team at 14, and my father and I never lost a set all season, as our fit young opponents vacillated between picking on the old guy, or targeting the little kid. So after I came to Canada in 1967, as my own minor tennis career  came to an end, I watched Andy Murray’s career take off, and supported him keenly – although watching him was never a truly relaxing experience.

He played a part in my own career as a writer. In 2008 he made it to the Final of the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, his first Grand Slam Final. I happened to be in Scotland, staying with my brother’s family near Stirling, just south of Dunblane, Andy Murray’s home town. Shazam! It was time for a piece of enterprise reporting. I contacted the Globe and Mail and asked if they would like a Special Correspondent’s Report on watching the New York Final in Andy Murray’s home town.

They liked the idea. I grabbed a quick sandwich, while my young nephew watched in disbelief (“You’re just going to go there and write about it for the newspaper?”), and drove to Dunblane. Quick questions on the street revealed that the tennis match would be shown at The Dunblane Community Centre. I found it, found the organizer, and shamelessly introduced myself with the words “I represent the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto”. In turn, she introduced me around in the crowd, to friends of the Murray family. I knew that all would be well when one old gentleman gave me the quote “Win or lose, to me Andy will always be just a wee laddie from Dunblane.” (Punching the air is not an appropriate response from a note-taking reporter).

Well, Andy didn’t win that day, but The Globe and Mail’s readers got a fine feature from an unexpected tennis correspondent. If you don’t believe it, you could look it up, from September 2008.

So Andy Murray and I go back a long way. Supporting Milos against him was going to be very hard. It was indeed, as my title suggests, a real tennis conundrum. How should a patriotic Canadian born in Scotland handle this culture clash?

In the end, I decided that since both Scottish and Canadian cultures are, let’s say “anti-triumphalist”, my most appropriate position was to support, and root for, the player who lost in the end.

So go, Milos!